With their World Series win, the Chicago Cubs gained membership to an exclusive baseball league, one that hasn’t admitted anyone for six years. It has a cool name: The Champion’s League. Not the fancy competition in Europe where all the good soccer teams gather once a year to play for bragging rights and snicker at the Americas, but a league of baseball franchises that were once defined by dread and despair before giving new meaning to human endeavor.
The rules of admission are set in stone; failure to meet one would make the Cubs ineligible.
A history of rampant and unexplained ineptitude? Check.
Nausea-inducing playoff defeats? Check.
Go more than a half a century without winning a World Series title? Double check.
There’s also the final and most improbable requirement: win a World Series. The Cubs did just that, overcoming a phalanx of obstacles that included three-time champions, Hall of Fame pitchers, and 3-1 series deficits. They did it by stopping a team that was also trying to gain entry into the league after already being denied twice over the last 20 years. It was yet another chapter of futility for a Cleveland Indians’ franchise that saw record breaking seasons go to waste in 1954 and 1995 and were three outs away before an epic collapse in 1997.
In the days and nights that followed game seven, Chicago resembled the end of a science fiction trilogy. You think people in the streets were celebrating the fall of an empire, but that couldn’t be true. Very few empires and regimes last for more than 100 years. But World Series droughts in Chicago predates creation, and when it was finally over, the city glowed as bright as Coruscant, Panem, Pandora and Middle Earth.
Stories will be told about these rebels for many generations to come.
But they are not alone in The League.
April 18, 2015 San Francisco, USA; (editors note: caption correction) San Francisco Giants during the 2014 World Series championship ring ceremony before the baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Ben Margot-Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports
Six years ago in a city 2,500 miles away, another fan base celebrated into the night. Until that point, there were two things that didn’t fall from the sky in San Francisco: snow and orange and black confetti. With the Giants having won their first World Series since moving from New York, fans soaked in the ticker tape as it fluttered through the air: sweet manna from the baseball deities.
Unlike the Cubs, the Giants didn’t have the entire baseball universe rooting for them. There was no curse, no Billy Goat, no hype. They entered the season not even expected to make the playoffs, and the fallout from Barry Bonds and BALCO had never really dissipated.
This group of guys hardly cared. Just like they didn’t care when they were picked to lose the NLCS and then the World Series. They loved making all the so-called experts look clueless and foolish, to watch them wring their hands and spin their predictions after everything went wrong.
The “torture ball” term used to describe the Giants that year was funny and popular among the fans that had followed them throughout the season. It was also wrong. The Giants never trailed in any of their playoff series and knocked out all three of their opponents on the road. The World Series was boring for everyone except Giants fans, who watched their team outscore the Rangers 29-12 in a quick five-game exercise.
Storybook endings were never big in the Bay Area, unlike the next team on the list.
Oct 2, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox former pitcher Pedro Martinez holds a World Series trophy overhead during pregame ceremonies honoring designated hitter David Ortiz (34) before a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
The Champions League was formed 12 years ago, when the Boston Red Sox vanquished an ancient curse with a playoff run that had it all -– bloody socks, walkoff home runs, ninth-inning rallies and the greatest comeback in sports.
The curse was never real, of course. But the frustration and the heartache and the disappointment were real. Boston fans saw it in their sleep, the images of Dent’s home run, Buckner’s error, Gibson’s death stare. It took 18 years to get the final out that eluded them in 1986 – the cure for everything in the universe.
Boston’s championship run united baseball fans everywhere and also made new ones, which was remarkable for a team with lowlife characters like Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek and Curt Schilling. They called themselves idiots, and they proved it time after time on and off the field. They were a few others things: escape artists, hitting juggernauts, gunslingers and base bandits.
In the end they were one thing above everything else: world champions in a league of their own.
They wouldn’t be alone for long.
Jul 18, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; The 2005 Chicago White Sox pose for a team photo during ceremonies to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 2005 World Series championship prior to a game against the Kansas City Royals at U.S Cellular Field. Kansas City won 7-6 in 13 innings. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
The very next year, The League welcomed a new member, a franchise whose pain and suffering went unnoticed even though it lasted a year longer. It was one of the consequences the White Sox faced for playing in the shadows of Chicago’s South Side. Even nine decades of famine wasn’t enough to rally support from the rest of the city, or anywhere else around it.
That may have been the fuel behind their unstoppable playoff run. A run that saw them go 11-1, throw out complete games on an assembly line and aggravate the living hell out of their opponents. Whether it was A.J. Pierzynski conning his way on base or Scott Posednik defying the laws of physics by hitting a home run, the White Sox embraced their win-at-all-costs philosophy and rode it all the way to the finish line, lapping sabermetrics and big payrolls twice along the way. At times it was beautiful, at times it was hideous.
What mattered is they always got it done, which is expected from the best team in baseball.
Who will join the league next?
There are a few candidates, the most prominent being the Cleveland Indians, who have now witnessed 68 years of baseball without a championship. But the Rangers, the Mariners and the Astros are all on the waiting list, and it’s going to be interesting to see so many talented teams try to bully their way to the front next year.
More likely though, an existing member of The League will win another World Series. Ever since ending their droughts, the Giants and the Red Sox have gotten good at winning championships, each adding to their trophy stash twice over the last decade. The Cubs and their fans won’t be satisfied with one, and they shouldn’t be. Their championship core of Bryant, Russell, Schwarber and Baez are all 24 or younger, and the “sage” of the team, Anthony Rizzo, is all of 27. The future, once so nebulous, now sparkles with endless possibilities. There are many championships left to be won, and with the baseball gods finally on the bandwagon it’s hard to imagine what could stop them.
Maybe another team in The League, one whose experience, talent and resources will be a force to be reckoned with both in the regular season and in October. There can only be one thing in baseball as glorious as a World Series, and that’s a Champions League Series. It’s only a matter of time before that happens. As these teams know better than anyone else, there’s always a first for everything.